Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:56 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:56 | SYDNEY

Good for Army, good for Australia?


Hugh White

11 May 2012 09:43

Jim Molan does the Army an injustice when he says it did not have the foresight to invent an amphibious future for itself a decade ago. He does himself an even bigger injustice, because I very clearly recall Jim, then perhaps still a brigadier, articulating precisely this vision with great force and clarity at a Defence Senior Leadership Retreat sometime in the mid-1990s. What's more, he single-handedly drove the development of an operational concept to justify it, which he called 'Manoeuvre Operations in the Littoral Environment'.

I thought at the time that Jim's ideas were the first really creative attempt by Army to get out of the corner into which they'd been painted by the low-level contingency scenarios of the 1980s, in which their only role was to chase handfuls of hapless and relatively harmless saboteurs around northern Australia.

Jim sought to restore Army to its traditional place as Australia's primary strategic instrument, but he understood that because Australia's strategic environment was utterly maritime, Army needed to be reconfigured to operate primarily in a maritime strategy. Answer? Turn it into a marine corps, and design the rest of the ADF to deploy, sustain and protect it. Fifteen years later, that is where we are today. Take a bow, Jim.

So no one should doubt that Jim's amphibious vision is good for Army. The question is whether it is good for Australia. 

That depends on whether the amphibious army is a cost-effective way to achieve our strategic objectives. That is hard to know until we have agreed what our strategic objectives are. My views on this are still pretty much as set out in Chapter 4 of the 2000 Defence White Paper.

I don't know that Jim has ever set out his views on this issue comprehensively; I'd urge him to do so. But we can get some hints from his post. He clearly does not believe we should be designing the ADF for operations against a major Asian power like China. I'd be interested to know why he thinks that. Is it because he is sure that China will never act aggressively as its power grows? Is it because he is sure that, if China does act aggressively, the US will always be there to help? Does he assume that the US would not expect or require some Australian support?

The point is critical to this debate. From what he wrote, I think Jim agrees that the amphibious army would not be cost-effective, or even viable, against a major Asian power. That is precisely why I think it's a waste of money (lighter forces for stabilisation operations are a different matter). And if its not usable against a major power, and its bigger than we need for stabilisation operations, what exactly is it for?

Finally, Jim asks what operational option Australia could use against a major Asian power. My answer is maritime denial operations. Australia's strategic geography means that we could perhaps, with real care and focus, achieve our most important strategic objectives independently if we have the capacity to deny our air and sea approaches to hostile ships and aircraft. I'm not sure that we could do this at acceptable cost. I am pretty sure that no other options are nearly as promising, so this is our best and probably our only hope. The reason is that we can achieve maritime denial without needing to achieve sea control, which I think will be very hard indeed against a major Asian power over coming decades. 

Jim will reply that sea denial will never 'win' a war. No, it will not. In the Asian Century, Australia is not going to be in the business of winning wars against major powers, but of trying to find ways to survive them.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.